When Clemson’s Dabo Swinney stepped off an airplane onto South Florida soil in late 2011 for his Orange Bowl debut as a head coach, he saw palm tree fronds and his giant likeness wrapped around team buses.
“Hey, we’re not in Kansas anymore,’’ Swinney recalled thinking.
No, this isn’t Kansas, and Thursday won’t be just any New Year’s Eve in South Florida.
For the first time in its 82-year history of postseason college football, the Capital One Orange Bowl will host a College Football Playoff semifinal at 4 p.m. when the No. 1 Tigers take on the No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners at Sun Life Stadium.
The nation will be watching, as it will when the extremely popular ESPN College GameDay sets up shop on the sands of South Beach from 9 a.m. to noon Thursday, no doubt bikini-clad onlookers in the crowd at 12th Street and Ocean Drive.
It was 25 degrees earlier this week in Norman, Oklahoma — home of the Sooners — and 83 degrees and sunny on South Beach.
“There’s no better setting you could imagine than having the ocean behind you,” College GameDay host and ESPN SportsCenter anchor Rece Davis said. “The vibrancy of South Beach makes it a prime spot to get a little energy going for our show.
“From a broader perspective, the greater Miami area has so much experience hosting big events that they just know how to do it. The locals understand it, nobody is overwhelmed by it, and they put their best foot forward.
“This is a big-event city. They’re not coming out for some regular-season thing. They’ve had LeBron [James] and the perfect Dolphins and national championships and Super Bowls, and this is in that vein.”
The stakes are high for Clemson and Oklahoma, as well as for No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl at 8 p.m Thursday — the winners advancing to the College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 11 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
The stakes are also high for the Orange Bowl, its organizers familiar with putting on big-time productions and hoping Sun Life Stadium will be awarded a title game when it comes time to bidding for the next rotation.
CFP executive director Bill Hancock, in town for the Orange Bowl, said the commissioners who attend Thursday’s game, as well as himself and any other staff members, are not trying to size up South Florida’s effort for possible future title games.
Still, a bang-up semifinal couldn’t hurt.
“Every time a city has an opportunity to put its best foot forward, the city will benefit,” Hancock said. “But we are not coming there with our white gloves on because frankly we’re all so familiar with the stadium, the hotels, the city itself, the Orange Bowl people. They don’t have anything to prove other than staging a great semifinal for the benefit of Oklahoma and Clemson.
“We’re certainly going to experience the game, see the stadium in operation — for me the first time with a sold-out crowd (66,524 with seats added in all four corners), so there is a technical aspect to it. But it’s not time to audition.”
The Orange Bowl is part of the College Football Playoff’s 12-year, six-site rotation in which South Florida will be awarded a national semifinal on New Year’s Eve every three years. National championship games are bid on separately, with South Florida losing out to Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium for the Jan. 9, 2017, title game and recently to Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Jan. 8, 2018, title game.
The next championship games for which the South Florida organizing committee will likely bid will be for 2021 (2020 season) and 2023 (2022 season). Sun Life Stadium is already a finalist for the 2019 and 2020 Super Bowls, and the Super Bowl Organizing Committee is in the process of putting together its bids for those years.
Sun Life Stadium has completed the first phase of a $450 million, three-phase renovation, which will help enhance South Florida’s efforts for both the college and NFL events. A stadium canopy and four new video boards will encompass the second phase in 2016 and club and suite renovations as well as pedestrian plazas, gate entry and landscaping will be included in the final phase in 2017.
“Certainly, providing a great experience for all the people that are coming — media, guests and the teams — is very important, and I think South Florida has a good track record of putting on these large-scale events,’’ said Todd Boyan, senior vice president of operations at Sun Life Stadium. “We want to execute on all fronts in terms of the fan experience.”
Orange Bowl Committee Chief Executive Officer Eric Poms called the weeklong South Florida celebration that culminates with Thursday’s game “a big deal” in itself. But he knows the importance of landing the title game.
“We’ve already succeeded, but we certainly as a community are focused on attracting college football championship games in the future and have an opportunity with this stage to showcase what we can do,” Poms said.
Part of the showcasing involves the pageantry and ancillary events.
On game day, American Idol winner Phillip Phillips will headline the Orange Bowl Fan Fest outside Sun Life Stadium. Fan Fest, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Gate S parking lot, will include interactive games and exhibits, lots of food and drink, performances by the Oklahoma and Clemson bands, a “Monster Jam” pit party with monster trucks targeted for children, a cook off competition, street art exhibit, bowl burger battle (with free tasting for an hour) and autograph signing by former college football stars.
Admission is $20 in advance and $25 on game day.
The week leading up to Thursday’s bonanza could bring South Florida up to $300 million in economic impact, said Nicki Grossman, who heads the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“You can’t get to the College Football Playoff National Championship without coming through South Florida,’’ Grossman said. “But I think we should have the title game every time it’s played. There is no better destination — north, south, east or west.”
Miami-Dade tourism director Bill Talbert wrapped up this week’s semifinal experience in one word: “Priceless.”